A case for the defence: J. Harkness and Australian cinema

After the dispiriting experience of directing his feature-length debut Shot of Love (2006), Australian director James Harkness swore ‘never again’. Undaunted, however, he returned last year with a second feature, Birthday. Now, in an article entitled ‘So Why Make Films in Australia?’ – published today on the website of Australian movie mag Film Ink – Harkness explores the trials and tribulations of making Australian films and, perhaps more importantly, getting them in front of local audiences.

Now I’ve been known to rant and rave about the short shrift often given to Australian cinema by the local press, but – published in the always supportive Film Ink – Harkness’ article arrives as a mostly erudite case for the defence, a timely assessment of how things stand from a creative (rather than a commercial) perspective. Obviously I would highly recommend reading Harkness’ article in full, but I feel it’s pertinent to highlight (and extrapolate) a few key points that might act as maxims (of a sort) for the ongoing development of a local film industry that seems to constantly find itself in choppy seas.

Commercial vs. Cultural

Assessing the usual, tired arguments about why Australian audiences are supposedly disinterested in local films, Harkness suggests that

to say that Australian films are missing out on commercial success and audience attendance based upon their alleged inferior quality, is a reductive, baseless argument.

Citing the popular assumption that Australian films are the victim of either ‘cultural cringe’ or their own over-serious, morbidly anti-entertaining tone, Harkness’ rightly points out that Australian audiences couldn’t possibly be disenchanted by films they haven’t actually seen. Highlighting the problem of disinterested film critics, he goes on to assert that audiences are more likely disenchanted by ‘the films they have seen; the ‘popular’ ones they ‘must see’, like it or not’ [his italics].

Hinting at the role of critics in fuelling this air of disenchantment, Harkness works toward the logical ends of this argument: if anti-intellectual or simply anti-cultural film critics use the aforementioned tactics to pan an otherwise good film that most audiences will never get the chance to see in the their local cinema, their opinions become those of the public by proxy. Unless audiences deliberately seek out screenings of a locally produced, under-promoted film, their interaction with the film is most often limited to critical reviews in the popular press, thus fuelling a self-perpetuating cycle of disenchantment that Harkness correctly identifies as beginning with critics, not with audiences (or, indeed, with the film itself).

A Problem of Access

At the centre of his argument, however, Harkness identifies a problem of access. In an exhibition landscape that is regrettably skewed towards sure-fire money-spinners, the under-appreciation of Australian cinema is often inextricably linked to problems of underexposure in the realms of marketing, distribution and exhibition – problems to which there is no simple solution (and certainly not one which doesn’t involve tax breaks or tax incentives for all three tiers of the film industry). That said, if Harkness’ argument has a weakness, it is a tendency to underplay the complexity of the issue with a suggestion that distributors and exhibitors are simply unwilling to take on films which they consider too ‘tough’. Like it or not, distributors and exhibitors are – almost without exception – businesses first and foremost.

But before they are forced to grapple with the dilemma of distribution and exhibition, local filmmakers must also navigate the structural problems inherent in film financing, prompting Harkness to assert that

it is never acknowledged that, at the very best of times, the film industry is not a meritocracy.

The history of modern Australian cinema is littered with examples of talented, highly creative first-time directors who made a great debut but never followed it up, either because their first wasn’t considered enough of a ‘success’, or because – like Harkness – they found the experience so thoroughly dispiriting and disenchanting that they are forced to turn their creative impulses elsewhere.

For Harkness, the wrong-headed tendency to link financial success to merit is as clear as day:

Box office figures do not define a good film or a valuable contribution to Australian culture.

And this, in some senses, is the crux of the issue. Those who see no value in the ability of local cinema to make a cultural contribution are unable to see past the perceived ‘failure’ of a film to make a significant box office return, especially when a film is unable to recoup its budget (a criticism further intensified by the fact that many Australian features receive some form of government support, either direct financial backing or in-kind support in the guise of tax incentives). Indeed, the ability of local feature films to make a ‘valuable contribution to Australian culture’ goes way beyond their limited theatrical run, with recent research by Screen Australia suggesting that ‘box office admissions account for less than ten per cent of all viewings’.

Beyond the Box Office

Once again, such issues are far more complex than most commentators are willing to admit, with gross box office figures often quoted without a detailed analysis (or understanding) of marketing, distribution and exhibition patterns and strategies. Furthermore, these surface comparisons of ‘budget vs. box office’ also fail to take into account revenues raised from an oft overlooked ancillary market, where DVD/VOD sales now account for a sizeable portion of total gross. That said, it’s also true that a larger profile during theatrical release (which usually drives, or is driven by, decent box office), typically results in far greater ancillary incomes.

Given that link, and the sense that a key difficulty for Australian cinema is the ability to reach audiences beyond the usual ‘single-week, large capital cities only’ model, a possible salve may be on the horizon. Last week, Screen Australia used an industry discussion forum – broadcast live on the internet – to launch the latest in a series of reports on local viewing habits. One issue arising from the report and subsequent discussions was this question of ‘access’ and the suggestion that a possible solution may lie in the shortening (or even abolition) of theatrical release windows for niche titles (including most Australian features). Although typically opposed by exhibitors, simultaneous theatrical and DVD/VOD releases would allow distributors and other interested parties to further capitalise on the publicity surrounding a film’s cinema release, whilst also giving audiences unable to access theatrical screenings an opportunity to see the film at the earliest possible opportunity. In response to the Screen Australia report, Inside Film editor Brendan Swift wrote an excellent opinion piece on the magazine’s website addressing the possibility of shorter release windows and citing the loss of buzz as a ‘structural issue driven by audiences’.

A Cycle of Mediocrity?

Simultaneous release or not, the current distribution pattern for Australian films needs to evolve in creative ways, with the local industry unable to compete with the ‘spend money to make money’ tactic pursued by Hollywood studios. As it stands, the current situation merely serves to fuel a ‘cycle of mediocrity’, at least according to Harkness, who claims that

Australian culture is being lost with dwindling honest representations of the many diverse aspects of Australian life, especially when we seem ever prepared to make ourselves look stupid, conforming to racist, cultural stereotypes to yield greater international sales.

Sadly, this is where Harkness’ own argument turns reductive. There are, of course, plenty of examples of recent successes which don’t conform to this rather near-sighted assessment, but the danger of ‘dwindling honest representations’ nevertheless exists. Thankfully, Harkness concludes his article on a far more positive note:

There is hope. It begins with a set of aesthetic and cultural values that privileges sincerity, the very keynote to high art, over contrivance and manipulation. There is hope that audiences and filmmakers reunite and demand more Australian films be made, not less… and especially… that more Australian films be seen.

How to achieve all this is, of course, the million dollar question.


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